Football: Fresno State faces USC in Las Vegas Bowl

They will meet on the field next year in late August in drastically altered versions of each other. 

Fresno State won’t have Derek Carr at quarterback. USC will have a sense of permanency with its head coach.

Fresno State’s 2014 season-opening matchup against USC at the Coliseum is going to have an opening act in this season’s encore. The Bulldogs (11-1), who captured the Mountain West championship Saturday with their 24-17 win over Utah State, will play the Trojans in the Las Vegas Bowl on Dec. 21 at Sam Boyd Stadium.

Fresno State made it official shortly after Saturday’s win, when a Las Vegas Bowl rep extended the invitation after the championship ceremony.

Bulldogs coach Tim DeRuyter said yes on the spot, and the fans that had stormed the field in the aftermath of Fresno State’s championship-clinching victory (its first outright conference title since 1989) erupted in cheers.

No, this was not the Bowl Championship Series bowl bid Fresno State was headed for throughout most of the season before losing to San Jose State in the final game of the regular season, but fans didn’t express any discontent at the chance of playing a team from the Pac-12 Conference when the announcement was made.

Nor did the players.

“Unfortunately, we didn’t get the [BCS] bid … but playing USC, we wouldn’t want it any other way,” wide receiver Isaiah Burse said Sunday.

Added DeRuyter, a self-proclaimed USC fan growing up in southern California: “We relish these kinds of opportunities to play BCS schools like USC. Hopefully we can play our best game of the year on the 21st, because we’re going to need to have a chance.”

The Trojans, who accepted their bid Sunday afternoon, enter the bowl game under their third head coach this season. Offensive coordinator Clay Helton took over as interim coach after Lane Kiffin’s firing in September and Ed Orgeron’s resignation last week after former University of Washington coach Steve Sarkisian was hired for the head coaching vacancy.

New Trojans coach Steve Sarkisian will travel with USC to the bowl game and will be at their practices to assess personnel, but, “He’s told us, ‘Hey, I’m going to step back and give you the right and the honor to lead your team,” Helton said Sunday night in teleconference.

“We are very thankful to him and [USC athletic director Pat] Haden for allowing that.”

USC finished the season 9-4 and third in the Pac-12 South, beating Mountain West runner-up Utah State 17-14 in September.

For DeRuyter, it will be his first time coaching against the Trojans. He never played against them in his time at the Air Force Academy, and joked about how they passed on him.

But one thing he didn’t joke about: the complicated situation of coaching a team during a transition process.

DeRuyter coached Texas A&M on an interim basis the December before heading to Fresno as the Bulldogs’ head coach. His hire was finalized before the bowl game, but he stuck around to coach the Aggies to a win against Northwestern in the 2011 Meineke Car Care Bowl.

Current wide receiver coach Tee Martin will remain on Sarkisian’s staff, the university announced last week in a release. Helton did not confirm in Sunday’s conference call whether or not any other current coaching staff members have been told that Sarkisian’ll retain them.

“It’s difficult,” DeRuyter said.

“I feel for Coach Helton because there’s always that instability of not knowing the future and you’ve a coaching staff, coaches there that are trying to make plans for their future. It makes for a difficult situation, but they’ve got some really outstanding coaches there.

There’s also the challenge of playing an early bowl – The Las Vegas Bowl is one of four games that day that kicks off the bowl season. For players, it competes with final exams.

The Bulldogs are off today through Wednesday before returning to practices Thursday through Saturday.

Fresno State will practice Monday and Tuesday before heading off to Las Vegas Tuesday night. Coaches will be on the road recruiting for most of that span.

DeRuyter is searching for his first bowl win as Fresno State’s head coach. Carr is looking for his first bowl victory as the Bulldogs’ starting quarterback.

Southern Methodist denied them that opportunity in last year’s Hawaii Bowl – a 43-10 loss.

They both get another shot against the Trojans.

“I know we have our hands full against a very talented USC team, but I’m a competitor,” DeRuyter said.

“… I grew up wanting to be a Trojan, didn’t work out that way because they didn’t want me, but to get a chance to compete against the likes USC, with their history and tradition, it’s a great opportunity for Fresno State.”